The Obscure Accordionist Who Played Mood Music on Silent Film Sets (link)
Actors needing to cry on cue turned to Danny Borzage.
by Nolan Moore September 20, 2016
Danny Borzage wasn’t a great actor. Visit his IMDb page and you’ll see he specialized in parts with names like “Townsman,” “Barfly,” and “Courtroom Spectator.” While he did appear in a few landmark films such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and To Kill a Mockingbird, he was only onscreen for a few seconds. Blink and you’ll miss him.
But while Borzage never became a superstar, he holds a special place in Hollywood history. After all, the man was a master manipulator. He could help A-list stars relax on set, or he could make big-name actors cry on-camera, all with his trusty accordion.
In the era of silent films, Danny Borzage made his living as a mood musician. Before The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with synchronized dialogue sequences, revolutionized cinema, mood musicians were hired to play their instruments on film sets. As the camera rolled, these performers would create live soundtracks in order to evoke emotions from the actors. If a leading lady needed to shed a few tears, a musician like Borzage would play something sad to get the waterworks flowing.
While it sounds pretty weird, this was standard practice back in the day. According to Patrick Miller in his article "Music and the Silent Film," Hollywood director D.W. Griffith enlisted a brass band to encourage extras during the battle sequences of his 1916 three-and-a-half-hour epic, Intolerance. Fellow director King Vidor often relied on opera recordings to get his actors in the right headspace.
In his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin explained how he created a melancholy mood for The Gold Rush by playing “Auld Lang Syne.” On the flip side, while shooting a slapstick short called Twenty Minutes of Love, Chaplin used a catchy dance number called “Too Much Mustard” to create an atmosphere of “nonsense.”